The politicisation of UK advertising


UK advertising has witnessed an insurgence of political ideology which now flexes its muscles in banning adverts it deems offensive or stereotypical. It is surely unhealthy in a free society for advertising to be dictated by the ideological left.

These days it’s more difficult for governments to boss us around and ensure we fall into whatever line they think we belong in, hoping we won’t realise what is going on until it’s too late. Universal social media and internet access means, thankfully, that plans of this sort tend to leak early and give us a chance to make life hell for the people putting them forward. Unfortunately, however, it’s not all good news. A lot of the dirty work is now being done, not by governments at all, but by private organisations. Think university student unions specifying exactly what comedians can and can’t be comic about, or professional organisations like the Solicitors Regulation Authority fining a Jewish lawyer for trashing his anti-Semitic tormentors online. Politicians are unfortunately delighted to be able to leave things in this way. Like Pontius Pilate, they can now ceremoniously wash their hands and deny all responsibility. “Control private organisations in their dealings? Perish the thought.”


Latest up in this connection is the ASA, the nominally private body set up by the advertising industry to whose rules, known as the Codes of Advertising Practice (there are two, covering broadcast and other ads respectively) all the major ad agencies are signed up. You probably know this organisation by its reassuring motto “Legal, decent, honest and truthful” and think of it as the avuncular group busily engaged in protecting the young from exploitation and keeping the ads we see at least nominally clean.


The ASA still performs this function, but recently it has shown signs of becoming more dogmatic and a great deal less benign. Last week it inserted in both its codes a statement, to become binding from June next year, that advertisements “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.” This carefully-drafted principle is just what you would expect from a body devoted to the art of persuasion: unexceptionable at face value. Do you really want to see people harmed or seriously offended? Of course not. Dig deeper, however, and there are some very strong reasons to worry.


For one thing, if you look not only at the new rule but at the guidance attached to it (you can read the latter here), what is being put forward is actually much more wide-ranging than it looks. It says, fairly bluntly, that even if consumers like them and an ad agency is happy to endorse them to sell its product, certain life-styles are now off-limits. Ads showing a man with his feet up and a woman clearing up after him? Certainly not. A woman prioritising appearance over professionalism by risking lateness at work while she paints her face? Absolutely forbidden (though, graciously, you can show a power woman putting on make-up at work). A spot with men macho and women dainty? “Likely to be unacceptable.” Jokes about men who can’t change nappies or women who can’t park? Outrageous. And so on.


The point is obvious: this is not a simple measure against causing offence or anything like it. It is instead a very selective ban on offence, raised in support of an overtly political message: ads must not in any way be disconfirming to a certain progressive feminist world view. Indeed, the mask subtly slips at one point. The guidance reassures the men in designer stubble in the agencies that it’s quite all right to feature gender stereotypes “as a means to challenge their negative effects.” And if this causes offence, or even harm (by belittling men)? In the ASA’s book, that is apparently entirely acceptable.


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There are also other reasons for concern. The ASA’s reference ASA to “harm” – by which it means an asserted tendency of gender stereotypes to lower people’s self-esteem and “limit their aspirations and ability to progress in key aspects of their personal and professional lives with harmful consequences for them and for society as a whole” – is actually a weaselly attack on advertisers’ ability to decide how they will present their message, and on our rights as consumers to see and buy what we like. Indeed, if “harm” as vague as this justifies interference, one has every reason to fear for the future, since the ASA is essentially saying it feels justified in restricting support for any point of view it happens to disagree with.


Other justifications are equally problematic. “We don’t see ourselves as social engineers, we’re reflecting the changing standards in society,” coos one Ella Smillie, an ASA spokeswoman, going on to make predictable references to things such as the gender pay gap and low rates of women seeking careers in science. This is disingenuous in the extreme. If society already genuinely reflected the ASA’s view, no-one would be advertising in the way it disapproves of: after all, marketing exists to bring people in to your message, not put them off it. Ms Millie’s apologia may be legal, decent and (stretch a point) honest: truthful it isn’t.


You might, of course, ask why this matters. However much you might not like the priggish posturing of the ASA, it is after all a mere private organisation without any legal powers. No-one actually has to take any notice of it; there is nothing to stop, say, a newspaper printing any ad it likes and telling the ASA to go fish. Unfortunately, however, life isn’t as simple as that. In practice neither advertisers nor publishers can bypass the ASA because no reputable ad agency will touch them thereafter, such is its stranglehold. And in any case, there’s a matter of principle. The ASA sets up its stall as the national self-regulation body, merely setting the ground rules as an independent arbiter. Pronouncements like this, however, show that it is anything but that: it is becoming a behind-the-scenes campaigning organisation with a very definite (political) axe to grind. Once again, legal and decent maybe, but neither very honest nor very truthful.


But there is a yet more important point than this. To say the ASA has no direct legal powers is true; but it is the sort of truth that recalls the guile of the serpent rather than the innocence of the dove. The communications regulator, an administrative Blair-era behemoth called Ofcom, licenses all commercial broadcasters. It is illegal to broadcast without an Ofcom permit, and it is a term of every licence that any ads broadcast must comply with – you’ve got it – all the requirements laid down from time to time by the ASA. A broadcaster who cut loose would be in danger of being fined by Ofcom or even losing its licence: no empty threat, given that the head of Ofcom, the achingly-woke Sharon White, has a history of interfering in the workings of broadcasters to ensure they conform to her strongly-PC views. Oh, and one other thing: in a report published in September this year Ofcom was, shall we say, not averse to spreading its tentacles further and taking over regulation of all online content, not simply broadcast material.


In other words, we have now reached a situation where, courtesy of an organisation with an axe to grind, advertising is required to reflect a particular political slant. In a major sector of the advertising market, TV and radio, it is now to become essentially illegal to publish any material that disagrees with a particular progressive social outlook; and in the rest of it, given the disinclination of other advertising carriers to call the ASA’s bluff, a similar uniformity is likely to prevail. The fact that you might like, and an advertiser might be happy to indulge, a particular social attitude is beside the point: as a consumer you just have to take what you’re given. This alone ought to worry anyone worried about attacks on diversity of opinion in the UK.


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